Feb 7 2024
NECESSARY DEEDS: Charles Rammelkamp follows the twists and turns in this new novel by Mark Wish
From the first sentence of Mark Wish’s rollicking new novel right through to the surprise plot twists at the end, the narrator, Matt Connell, keeps the reader intrigued and turning the pages. ‘Here in Sing Sing,’ he tells us, ‘the killers I’ve met are better storytellers than most of the novelists I’ve represented.’ Right away, we know the narrator is in prison for some serious crime and that he’s been involved in book publishing. We are also immediately charmed by his ironic humor. What has he done and yet, why are we automatically inclined to cut him some slack?
Turns out that in a fit of passion, Matt killed his friend and client, Geoff Considine, who, he learned from another friend, had been sleeping with his wife. Matt has been languishing in a cell for four years when the novel opens.
Matt is in the prison yard shooting hoops when he’s approached by a man who turns out to be an FBI agent. Jonas is there to offer him a deal. Matt can get out of prison if he agrees to work undercover to help capture a serial killer who preys on talented female novelists. The chief suspect? Matt’s former client Ethan Hendee, a struggling poet who lives hand to mouth, still waiting for his break after thirty years of writing largely unnoticed and unpaid verse.
Here, despite the realistic prose, the reader is already saying, “No way! Preposterous! That would never happen!”
Only – way. The plot just thickens like porridge, and Wish keeps us reading with his brisk and engaging writing. This is noir straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook –
murder and mayhem with a nudge and a wink.
The FBI calls the killer “The Success Killer,” and Matt helps finger Hendee for the murders – that is, until another killing happens while Hendee is in prison. Having performed so well as an undercover assistant, to the praise of his handlers, Matt harbors fantasies of becoming FBI himself and ditching his career as a literary agent altogether. He’s even secretly grateful (and also feels guilty) when Hendee is released and he’s asked to continue his undercover operation. At this point, however, the FBI feels compelled to re-name The Success Killer, and he (or she) is now “The Talent Killer,” in a hilarious send-up of serial-killer nicknames. (How do these guys get their names, after all? BTK, Son of Sam, The Night Stalker, The Co-Ed Butcher, et al.?) Hendee, meanwhile, has become a celebrity himself, because of the arrest, and Matt stands to benefit as his literary agent, with publishing offers suddenly coming in. See where all this is going?
To complicate things even more, Matt finds himself falling in love with the bewitching Em Fontaine, whom he meets at a reading at the Cornelia Café. Like everybody else, Em has a complicated history and, like everybody else, becomes a suspect herself. The “whodunit” aspect of Necessary Deeds is exquisitely confusing, keeps you guessing.
Even Matt’s FBI handlers come under suspicion. Matt’s point man with the Bureau is Jonas; his partners are an agent named Dawn Trinko and their boss, Harnischfeger. They are all secretly following and eavesdropping on each other in a comic Spy vs. Spy vibe. Jonas, who for the sake of Matt’s ruse pretends to be an aspiring writer named Pat Lynch from Barstow, is also a would-be poet, it turns out, which immediately makes him a suspect as well; does he envy of the notoriety Hendee has achieved?
Matt is posing as the literary agent he once was before his “twenty-eight minutes” (which is how he describes his crime of passion) to ferret out suspects. Since the profile of the killer they are seeking as the “Talent Killer” is a jealous, unsuccessful writer, Harnischfeger’s assignment for Matt is to go after ‘every untalented novelist in the tristate area’ who submits a query. ‘The more untalented, the better.’
Calling on his years as a “book doctor” in the cutthroat New York publishing world, Mark Wish writes authoritatively about the process, with humor but noticeable exasperation. One email he opens “offers a parade of clichéd phrases, subject-verb agreement problems, and an obtuseness with punctuation that assures me texting is indeed the end of literature.” But when a steak knife appears in the writing sample as a murder weapon, Matt alerts his FBI handlers, describing the writing as ‘Your basic workshoppy, run-on-sentence stuff, only a helluva lot angrier.’ Does his suspicion lead anywhere? You need to read the story, which, reader beware, abounds with red herrings.
In case I haven’t been clear, there is a strong love story involved here as well. First, there’s the crime of passion that lands Matt in prison in the first place, his “28 minutes” that result from his “Ferrari brain,” a condition Em tells him that she read about online, where the brain overloads as a result of deception. There’s also Matt’s infatuation with Em, whose “brightness” makes him happy, optimistic, even as he becomes troubled with suspicions about her past and is warned off having any contact with her by the FBI. Matt meets his ex-wife Lauren, who has remarried since his conviction and imprisonment, to Blaine, the man who snitched to Matt about Lauren’s affair. He gets a fresh perspective on that episode, which changes the whole gestalt. But no spoilers here!
In resolving the plot, exposing the Talent Killer, does Mark Wish provide the reader with a happy ending? We’re dealing with noir here, usually not a safe bet for “cheerful.” The reader will have to decide for herself.